Becoming a Technical Leader

An Organic Problem-Solving Approach

"twenty-four well-reasoned, thought-provoking chapters on making the change from technical star to problem-solving leader... an extremely practical and down-to-earth book." - Cause/Effect 

(translated into Dutch, Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese)

This book is a personalized guide to developing the qualities that make a successful leader. It identifies which leadership skills are most effective in a technical environment and why technical people have characteristic trouble in making the transition to a leadership role. For anyone who is a leader, hopes to be one, or would like to avoid being one. (This is the "textbook" for Problem Solving Leadership Workshop.) 

Order now from Dorset House Books!

When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.

"Give me the best piece of meat you have," said the customer.

"Everything in my shop is the best," replied the butcher. "You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best."

At these words Banzan became enlightened.

-- Paul Reps

"Everything Is Best" from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

This is a book about enlightenment, both mine and yours. Mine is still incomplete, but so far has taken rather longer than a walk through the market. This book, for instance, has been at least fifteen years in the making.

It started around 1970, when Don Gause, Dani Weinberg (my wife), and I spent a summer in Switzerland. Don and I were writing a book on problem solving (Are Your Lights On? or How to Figure Out What the Problem Really Is), and Dani was continuing her anthropological research on Swiss Peasant communities. Over the years, Don and I had been studying successful and unsuccessful problem-solving efforts, particularly computing projects. Dani had been studying the ways in which new technology had been introduced into peasant communities. Comparing notes, we dreamed of a workshop that would have the maximum possible leverage on the successful introduction of new technical systems, but where was that leverage?

When we compared successful and unsuccessful systems, we quickly realized that almost all of the successes hinged on the performance of a small number of outstanding technical workers. Some of them were consistent sources of innovative technical ideas, some were interpreters of other people's ideas. Some were inventors, some were negotiators, some were teachers, some were team leaders. What distinguished them from their less successful colleagues was a rare combination of technical expertise and leadership skills. Today, we would say that they were high in innovation, but with sufficient motivational and organizational skills to use in making ideas effective.

These leaders were not the pure technicians produced by the engineering and science schools, nor were they the conventional leaders trained in the schools of management. They were a different breed, a hybrid. What they shared was a concern for the quality of ideas. Like the butcher, they wanted everything in their shop to be the best. We called them technical leaders.

Don, Dani, and I designed a new leadership workshop, called "Technical Leadership in Computer Programming," which was first given in Australia at the invitation of Dennis Davie. (It's now called the Problem Solving Leadership Workshop, or PSL.) Fourteen out of fifteen participants rated it "the most profound educational experience I've ever had." We realized we had found our leverage.

In the years that followed, Daniel Freedman and a few others joined our team and the workshop was given to hundreds of would-be technical leaders all over the world. A few electrical and mechanical engineers slipped in, as did some trainers. Except for some technical material, these newcomers found everything directly applicable to their work. As a result, we gradually dropped technical material and broadened our audience. We also broadened our vision of what was possible.

For one thing, we discovered that this technical leadership style was applicable to many problems that have nothing to do with technology. We began to hear stories from workshop graduates who had applied it to situations other than those arising from their technical work.

These people had transformed themselves from ordinary technical supervisors into problem-solving leaders with the power to make things happen. Many of them didn't understand their own transformation. It seemed as if one day they were supervisors and the next they were leaders, like Banzan in the marketplace. But if leadership were only attained through a sudden, mystical enlightenment, how could one learn to become a technical leader?

Over the years, the biggest lesson we have learned from our workshops is that becoming a leader is not something that happens to you, but something that you do. Often in a workshop, someone seems to attain a sudden enlightenment, but we have no more to do with that than the butcher had to do with the moment that completed Banzan's lifelong conversion. Our workshops do not teach people to become leaders; they merely give a boost to each person's unique experiential process of self-development. This book takes the same approach: Consider it as your personal leadership workshop.

From working with systems, I have learned that the process of change is always organic: It's never possible to change just one thing at a time. Each of my behaviors is the solution to some problem from my past. To learn, I add new behaviors to serve alongside these valuable old ones. Yet, like a seed, I already have all the behaviors needed to grow, so I merely need to cultivate them selectively

I believe that leadership involves a nurturing process, not taking charge of people's lives, so this book is a guide to the process of taking charge of your own development. Its methods, like the methods of our workshops, are organic, designed to fit with the unique system that is you in a way that is gentle, realistic, and fun.

Nevertheless, the process of change won't always feel like fun. Because change is often difficult, the book is also designed to provide emotional support. I offer models of leadership, so you'll have an opportunity to let go of some old myths that may block your path. I offer models of change, so you'll understand better what's happening when old ideas fall away. I quote other people's remarks about their feelings as they've become technical leaders, so you'll know you're not alone. I know you will find your own unique enlightenment, and I hope this book will be a welcome companion on your walk through the marketplace.



Preface vii

Foreword xi


1. What is Leadership, Anyway? 3

The reluctant leader 5

Facing the leadership issue 6

A conventional but flawed view of leadership 7

Contrasting models of the world 8

Explanation of an event 9

Definition of a person 10

Definition of relationships 10

Attitude toward change 11

An organic definition of leadership 12

Questions 14


2. Models of Leadership Style 15

Motivation 17

Ideas 18

Organization 18

The MOI model of leadership 19

What technical leaders do 20

Faith in a better way 22

Questions 23


3. A Problem-Solving Style 25

Understanding the problem 27

Managing the flow of ideas 29

Controlling the quality 31



4. How Leaders Develop 35

Practice makes perfect 37

The great leap forward 38

Falling into the ravine 39

Growth in the real world 40

How growth feels 42

The metacycle 43

Questions 45


5 But I Can't Because ... 47

I'm not a manager 49

I'm not the leader type 51

I'll lose my technical skills 52

I'm in grave danger of growing 53

I don't want that much power 54

Questions 56



6. The Three Great Obstacles to Innovation 61

Are you aware of what you had for dessert? 63

Self-blindness: the number one obstacle 64

No-Problem Syndrome: the number two obstacle 65

Single-solution belief: the number three obstacle 68

Summary 71

Questions 72


7. A Tool for Developing Self-Awareness 73

A test of your motivation 75

Your initial reaction 75

Your personal journal 76

What to write about 77

What the journal does 78

Questions 81


8. Developing Idea Power 83

The problem-solving leader's central dogma 85

Creative errors 86

Stolen ideas 86

Corrupted stolen ideas 87

Copulation 88

Why ideas seem wicked 88

Questions 90


9 The Vision 91

The career line 93

The events don't matter 95

Can success breed failure? 96

The central role of the vision 97

Why the vision creates an innovator 98

Finding the vision in yourself 99

Questions 101



10 The First Great Obstacle to Motivating Others 105

Testing Yourself 107

An interaction model 108

The manifest part of an interaction 109

The hidden parts of an interaction 109

Satir's interaction model 110

Understanding why communications go awry 114

A way to start clearing communications 115

Questions 117


11 The Second Great Obstacle to Motivating Others 119

An unpleasant task 121

Lessons from a task-oriented style 122

Is a people-oriented style better? 123

Weinberg's Target 124

Planning and the future 124

The second great obstacle 125

The leader as a person 126

Questions 128


12 The Problem of Helping Others 129

Help should be natural 131

Trying to be helpful: an exercise 132

Some lessons about helping 134

Helping and self-esteem 137

Questions 139


13 Learning to be a Motivator 141

Always be sincere (whether you mean it or not) 143

Survival rules 144

Meta-rules 144

Transforming rules into guides 145

Becoming genuinely interested in other people 149

Why and when you should read Dale Carnegie 150

Questions 152


14 Where Power Comes From 153

Power as a relationship 155

Power from technology 156

Expertise as power 157

Keeping power 158

Questions 160


15 Power, Imperfection and Congruence 161

A mechanical problem 163

Mature patterns of behavior 164

Dealing with your own mechanical problems 165

I must always be natural and spontaneous 167

I must always be perfectly effective 168

The payoff for being congruent 169

Questions 172



16 Gaining Organizational Power 175

Converting power 177

Edrie's examples of power conversion 179

Collecting points 180

Using power 181

Questions 183


17 Effective Organization of Problem-Solving Teams 185

A spectrum of organizational forms 187

Individual scores and voting 188

The strong leader 189

Consensus 189

Mixed organizational forms 191

Form follows function 192

Appendix: scoring the ranking 194

Questions 195


18 Obstacles to Effective Organizing 197

First obstacle: playing the Big Game 199

Second obstacle: organizing people as if they were machines 200

Third obstacle: doing the work yourself 201

Fourth obstacle: rewarding ineffective organizing 202

Organic organizing 203

Questions 205


19 Learning to Be an Organizer 207

Practice 209

Observe and experiment 210

Look for incongruence: They're doing the best they can 211

Look for crossed wires 212 Legitimize differences 213

Use yourself as a model of the team 214

Change as you succeed 215




20 How You Will Be Graded as A Leader 219

The professor's first day of class 221

The fatal question 222

Multiplicative grading for leaders 223

A strategy for improvement 224

Can teaching and leading be learned? 224

Grading on the first day 225

A possible solution 225

Questions 228


21 Passing Your Own Leadership Tests 229

A top executive test 231

The ability to withstand tests 232

How to handle an intruder 232

Arnold's Approach 233

Ramon's Approach 235

What's the right way?

Using and abusing tests 236



22 A Personal Plan for Change 239

An experiment 241

The mental climate for change 241

A personal achievement plan 242

Can it make a difference? 244

Elements of a plan 245

Questions 247


23 Finding Time to Change 249

Staying on target 251

Doing two things at once 253

The cheapest tuition 255

Questions 257


24 Finding Support for Change 259

A support system 261

Technical resource support 262

Support through criticism 263

Support for growth 263

Support for recovery 264

Emotional support 265

Spiritual support 266

Support to maintain leadership 266

Questions 268

Epilogue 269

Bibliography 275

Index 281